Natural killer cells can discriminate between normal cells and cells that do not express adequate amounts of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules. The discovery, both in mouse and in human, of MHC-specific inhibitory receptors clarified the molecular basis of this important NK cell function. However, the triggering receptors responsible for positive NK cell stimulation remained elusive until recently. Some of these receptors have now been identified in humans, thus shedding some light on the molecular mechanisms involved in NK cell activation during the process of natural cytotoxicity. Three novel, NK-specific, triggering surface molecules (NKp46, NKp30, and NKp44) have been identified. They represent the first members of a novel emerging group of receptors collectively termed natural cytotoxicity receptors (NCR). Monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) to NCR block to differing extents the NK-mediated lysis of various tumors. Moreover, lysis of certain tumors can be virtually abrogated by the simultaneous masking of the three NCRs. There is a coordinated surface expression of the three NCRs, their surface density varying in different individuals and also in the NK cells isolated from a given individual. A direct correlation exists between the surface density of NCR and the ability of NK cells to kill various tumors. NKp46 is the only NCR involved in human NK-mediated killing of murine target cells. Accordingly, a homologue of NKp46 has been detected in mouse. Molecular cloning of NCR revealed novel members of the Ig superfamily displaying a low degree of similarity to each other and to known human molecules. NCRs are coupled to different signal transducing adaptor proteins, including CD3ζ, Fc∍RIγ, and KARAP/DAP12. Another triggering NK receptor is NKG2D. It appears to play either a complementary or a synergistic role with NCRs. Thus, the triggering of NK cells in the process of tumor cell lysis may often depend on the concerted action of NCR and NKG2D. In some instances, however, it may uniquely depend upon the activity of NCR or NKG2D only. Strict NKG2D-dependency can be appreciated using clones that, in spite of their NCRdull phenotype, efficiently lyse certain epithelial tumors or leukemic cell lines. Other triggering surface molecules including 2B4 and the novel NKp80 appear to function as coreceptors rather than as true receptors. Indeed, they can induce natural cytotoxicity only when co-engaged with a triggering receptor. While an altered expression or function of NCR or NKG2D is being explored as a possible cause of immunological disorders, 2B4 dysfunction has already been associated with a severe form of immunodeficiency. Indeed, in patients with the X-linked lymphoproliferative disease, the inability to control Epstein-Barr virus infections may be consequent to a major dysfunction of 2B4 that exerts inhibitory instead of activating functions.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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